Serpentine Gallery and Mathaf:Arab Museum of Modern Art map London-Arab links
by Susannah Tarbush
London has long been an important city on the world map of Arab literature, with Arab authors writing about it and sometimes making it their home. The Arab literary relationship to London was the focus of Pop-Up Mathaf: Mapping Arab Literature in London, an evening event held recently at the London Review Bookshop. The event was part of Continuous City: Mapping Arab London, a series of talks, discussions and publications mapping relationships between London and Arab cities. Continuous City is being developed by Doha-based Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art and the Serpentine Gallery's Edgware Road Project as part of Qatar UK 2013 Year of Culture.
The event was a tribute to the late great Sudanese writer Tayeb Salih (1929-2009), author of the acclaimed and pioneering novel Season of Migration to the North which was first published in Arabic in 1966. The novel was translated into English by Denys Johnson-Davies, and has appeared in around 30 other languages. Season of Migration is partly set in London, where Salih himself resided for a long period and where he was at one time head of drama for the BBC Arabic Service.
The gathering offered the audience the privilege of hearing from Salih’s 82-year-old close friend and collaborator, the Sudanese artist Ibrahim El-Salahi, a man of much wisdom, clarity and charm. His major retrospective Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist , bringing together 100 works produced over more than 50 years, opened at London’s Tate Modern on 3 July and runs until 22 September.
Pop-Up Mathaf: Mapping Arab Literature in London was hosted by Deena Chalabi, a New York-based writer and curator who grew up in London and was founding Head of Strategy at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art. This year she is guest curator of the two Pop-Up Mathaf programmes in London and Liverpool.
Chalabi said it had been "an absolute honour" to know El-Salahi since the opening of Mathaf almost three years ago. He was not only one of the artists in Mathaf's opening exhibition, Sajjil: A Century of Modern Art, but was also featured in the exhibition Interventions. "The work he has made in Doha before and since continues to be an inspiration to all of us."
Pop-Up Mathaf: Mapping Arab Literature in London was one of the events in the three-day Ehtifal Festival of art, literature, music and family events presented by the Serpentine Gallery and the Qatar Museums Authority (QMA) as part of Qatar UK 2013 Year of Culture. Ehtifal was also one of the final events in the Shubbak Festival of contemporary Arab culture from 22 June to 6 July.
Since opening in Doha in December 2010 Mathaf has explored various strategies for engaging with audiences in the Arab world and beyond. The Pop-Up Mathaf framework, developed by Deena Chalabi, aims to engage with international audiences through a “flexible, innovative and engaging cross-cultural platform for multiple voices on art and ideas.” This year Chalabi is guest curator of the two Pop-Up Mathaf programmes in London and Liverpool.
Chalabi said the Continuous City project grew out of conversations she had with the Edgware Road Project, and during her upbringing in London with Arab relatives who were always referencing and thinking about other cities and places. Added to these conversations was “my exposure to the cosmopolitanism of Arab artists and writers in my work over the past five years with Mathaf”. Together, “they outline the importance of activating culture and memory, intergenerational dialogue, and engagement with place in different ways, as being crucial to each of us as we try and navigate our own space in the world.”
Jochen Volz, head of programmes at the Serpentine Gallery, explained that the Edgware Road Project is one of the Serpentine’s off-site initiatives. Since 2008 it has brought artists, thinkers, writers and researchers to the Edgware Road area. “Here we have worked with members of the community to chart histories and map relationships between London and the Arab world from a local perspective. It is in the spirit of this project that we are very happy to be collaborating with our great friends at Mathaf, the QMA and Shubbak to present this evening's programme"
Volz noted that he and the Serpentine’s Director Julia Peyton-Jones and Co-Director Hans Ulrich Obrist have worked with the QMA on many occasions. This collaboration included the commissioning of a public installation Rock on Top of Another Rock, by artists Fischli and Weiss, currently on display in Kensington Gardens.
Rock on Top of Another Rock in Kensington Gardens
Volz said: "It is with this idea of exchange in mind that this evening we will hear from writers and publishers who span generations of Arab literature in London. They will interrogate questions of time, place, memory and migration.”
He added that “Continuous City invites artists, writers, economists and historians to develop an atlas charting relationships between London and the Arab world. We will see the results of this research emerge through publishing initiatives, online and through events.”
Amal Khalaf, assistant curator of the Edgware Road Project said Continuous City is “a really great opportunity for us to put out all of the research, the studies, the stories that we've been collecting on the Edgware Road with artists and people from the community, from the cafes, from the community centres and cultural centres.”
Deena Chalabi said the Pop-Up Mathaf event was "just the beginning of the Continuous City project which will feature research on many different aspects of Arab London. The publication will hopefully include many expanded versions of the conversations and readings this evening." The contributions during the ever would be “teasers for what will come later" in Continuous City. “Each of our writers and artists has tremendously varied experiences of the world and this particular world city we're in and we're delighted to have them all with us.”
Serpentine co-director Hans Ulrich Obrist screened a short section of a two-hour interview he conducted with Tayeb Salih at his house in Wimbledon in 2006 as part of the gallery's first Marathon event. Obrist cited Eric Hobsbawm “who always said we need an urgent memory moment”. Obrist added that “memory may be in our age of the internet even more urgent than before: because we have more and more information there are more memories. Maybe as Rem Koolhaas said there is much amnesia in the centre of this information age.”
His interview with Salih included discussion of mapping, memory and Season of Migration to the North. The novel is "an inspiration not only to so many writers but also to many architects we work with, and to many visual artists. So we felt it was very important to do an event in memory of Tayeb Salih."
He discussed with Salih what Hobsbawm had told him about living in an age of increasing amnesia and that he thinks we should somehow protest against forgetting. Salih responded “I also claim that I'm trying to do that because in the things which happen to a country like the Sudan and the changes and the coups and the new ideology, the various ideologies, often people think they are doing something new but they are not.
"If only they could go back 100 years, 200 years, 500 years they will realise that they are not doing anything new, they are merely repeating, in a slightly different way. And a great deal of time is wasted because people imagine they are innovating, they are pioneers, they are doing something new, they are not. So awakening memory is very important."
Salih compared the writing of a novel to carrying out archaeology. "In my writing I hanker after something impossible: to keep the world I knew and loved the same. And of course I know very well that is impossible, but there is no harm in trying. Many architects are now trying to do the same, and poets and painters and so on.”
Obrist asked Salih about Season of Migration and issues of transition, migration and being out of place. Salih said "when you read Season of Migration with reference to an earlier novel called The Wedding of Zein – in which the community I grew up in is more or less intact - then you see the trauma which befell the community in the end.
a photograph of the young Tayeb Salih (R) displayed during Pop-Up Mathaf
“There is a stranger coming from the outside - and then the place undergoes a very extreme trauma with double murder in the village and things the like of which never happened before. It’s almost a Shakespearean idea or Greek idea. Shakespeare [Hamlet] says ‘Time is out of joint’. And the time comes out of joint in Season of Migration.”
Obrist read out a message which the legendary 88-year-old Beirut-born poet, writer and visual artist Etel Adnan had sent to the event from Paris. Obrist said many of Adnan's paintings had been shown in the last Documenta in Germany and that she had often talked to him about Salih and his notion of time being out of joint.
Adnan's text began: "I am writing you a letter, dear Tayeb, as where you are computers haven't reached yet... " She recalled meeting him in Beirut in around 1973. “You were radiant. A beautiful human being. I had to interview you for my newspaper. I had such a love for your writings that I couldn't say much. I still can't.
“You brought Africa in Arab literature - of course the whole of North Africa is African but that didn't really enter our consciousness. We have a serious reality problem, we are mainly Africans, and because of you we may start to belong to that continent that is still to be discovered by its own people... you brought - with the immense expanses of the Sudan and the incredible majesty of the Nile - a modernity and an elegance of style that no one in Arabic had ever achieved."
She wrote that Salih "spoke of our new nomadic lives, the caravans nowadays not following the Silk Road, but always North. I remember that your voice over the radio had the humming of a drum, and your thinking the originality of wild life."
Hans Ulrich Obrist interviews Ibrahim El-Salahi
After the screening of the excerpt from his 2006 interview with Salih, Obrist recalled that during the interview “I asked him about art and his answer was very short: he said for him art is Ibrahim El-Salahi."
In conversation with Obrist, El-Salahi spoke captivatingly about his creative friendship with Salih whom he first met at secondary school in Omdurman. "I remember him very well indeed. He was a little bit shy, kept to himself, he was a bookworm. He read a great deal and he learnt and recited Arab poetry and colloquial local poetry.” As far as Arabic classical poetry is concerned he was “in love till his last days with Abu Tayeb al-Mutanabbi”.
At secondary school "we grew really close to each other and I understood him fully during our fourth year and that was in 1948, a long time ago." Tayeb loved chatting and getting together. But it was only years later that he found out Tayeb was a writer: “he was secretive, almost shy” about his writing.
"The first time that I knew he was a writer was in the early 60s. I was contacted by Tawfiq Sayegh, the Lebanese publisher, who ran the magazine called Hiwar - Dialogue - and he said to me 'Tayeb Salih says that you have to illustrate this book', which was The Wedding of Zein, with the seven stories in it. So I read the material .... I was puzzled, I said to him when I met him later, Tayeb Salih, you have all this wealth of literature and creative work and you never tell me about it? He said it's very simple, there's nothing much at all about it. He was very humble about his work, as if he wasn't sure in the beginning of the strength and power in his work." Working on illustrations for The Wedding of Zein was "when I realised what a powerful writer Tayeb Salih is."
El-Salahi said when he had heard Salih's voice in the extract from Obrist's filmed interview it "made me a little bit sad not to see him here with us. But he speaks about the past, the wealth of the past in Sudan, long before the time of Kush, and the kingdoms we had. And he always evokes the past in such a lively way.
“I know he cared a great deal about my work as a picture maker, as a draughtsman, but I think of him as a real artist because he can create with words the essence of the scene and makes it so alive that it's fantastic - he's a painter."
Ibrahim El-Salahi spent time as a political prisoner in Sudan in the 1970s. Tayeb Salih helped him during this difficult period. "He was at that time working as a director of information in Qatar and he sent two telegrams to get me out of Sudan to Qatar with the pretence of helping in the process of creating a department of culture - which was there before. It was just a kind of a trick to get me out."
In Qatar he was asked by Doha magazine to illustrate Salih's story Maryud (which was published in English translation by Denys Johnson-Davies, together with the story Dan al-Beit, as Bandarshah). "That was something I enjoyed enormously because here with all the characters which are in it and all of them who evoke the past and the riches of the life we had before - I never know what happened later on - that's the kind of work I did in The Wedding of Zein and all the seven stories which are involved in that book and with Maryud. I used to call him Maryud because I saw in him the flag of our history, the flag of our dignity, as Sudanese - a mixture of Arab and African and Nubian."
Obrist told El-Salahi he had been reading during the previous couple of weeks "this incredible book which Salah Hassan edited, Ibrahim El-Salahi: A Visionary Modernist , which is actually in a different form and different cover the catalogue of your Tate exhibition." The book includes an interview with Ulli Beier on his collaboration with Tayeb Salih in Qatar, and the illustrations to his work made for Doha literary magazine. "You said how important they were because they led you to something more surreal, more colourful. They were somehow the trigger for you, for many many works you did after, larger designs with calligraphy elements. I think it's so interesting this dialogue between you as an artist and him as a writer, which was much more than illustration - it triggered something."
El-Salahi said Salih was "always interested in seeing how I developed my work. I remember that when I came back from Europe I changed into a style which was manifested first in his books which I illustrated. I cared about two elements which I found valuable as far as aesthetics are concerned: Arabic calligraphy and African motifs and sense of decoration, which also takes me back to my childhood. I remember I was sent to school at the age of two and there whenever we learnt certain verses of the Koran we decorated our wooden slates with a sense of decoration that we called sharafa - sharafa means the honoured one - and we honour what we learn and what we believe in.
"I took those two elements - Arabic calligraphy, and the sense of decoration - and I put them in a melting pot to see what I could derive from them, what I could get out of this combination of two elements - an abstract form, an abstract design. And that's how it worked in the beginning. In the early 60s in the Sudan I was working in collaboration with other artists who were there at the same time and had the same notion of the identity of the Sudanese in Northern Sudan - and this was called later on the 'School of Khartoum'." It was the painter and art critic Denis Williams who gave this title to the art movement in Northern Sudan.
Self-Portrait of Suffering by Ibrahim El-Salahi 1961
Iwalewa-Haus, University of Bayreuth, Germany © Ibrahim El-Salahi
"Tayeb Salih was very keen and always asked me to show him what I am doing. He used to say to me sometimes - because I had some times when I managed to break the form of the letter to see the components and what is in it - other things came out - plant forms and animals forms and spiritual shapes - he used to say to me, 'all those devils you create, you'd better control some of them, otherwise they will overpower you.' I'll never forget him saying that."
Obrist asked him about unrealised projects. "We can see five decades of your work at Tate Modern, so much of your realised work, books in collaboration with Tayeb Salih are also in the exhibition... are there projects you still have not realised? What are the unbuilt roads of Ibrahim?"
"There are many of them," El-Salahi said. "I keep working continuously, until now. I am 82 years, I am going to be 83 soon, in September, I keep working daily - I only stop now because there is an exhibition. But I work about 12 hours a day seven days a week - I find it is something which has to keep going on. I have works comes to me as ideas as sort of a sperm of an idea kind of a germ, a small thing. By working at it continuously it grows and develops.
"Right now I have masses of canvases which are still blank, and I'm just waiting for this exhibition to finish to start working on them. The thing is that there's a child within me - 82 years, 83 years, but I still have a child which has never grown and therefore never leaves me alone at all, and reminds me that there is a lot to be done before it's time to say goodbye."